The National Grocers Association (NGA), is working with legislators and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA FNS) to expand Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Online Purchasing to more independent grocers so that they can help to feed Americans when they need it most.
Last week, NGA hosted a virtual meeting with FNS Administrator Pam Miller and approximately 25 independent grocers and e-commerce representatives to discuss the barriers and challenges small retailers face when working through the SNAP Online Purchasing application and testing process, the grocers association said in a statement.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocers have been working diligently to serve their customers and feed their communities in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Independent grocers play an important role in feeding America’s rural communities and helping to eradicate food deserts,” said NGA Director of Government Relations Molly Pfaffenroth. “As consumer behavior and expectation shifts to online offerings, it is incredibly important that independent grocers have the opportunity to offer SNAP online purchasing so they can continue to best serve their customers according to their needs and help fight food insecurity during this critical time.”
The NGA said it is recommending that FNS take the following steps to help level the playing field for the independents:
- Explore ways to increase choice in the third-party payment providers’ space and alleviate some of the onboarding costs for retailers.
- Work quickly and efficiently in approving and launching retailers, while expediting any possible aspects of the process.
- Determine if FNS needs more funding and resources from Congress to most quickly and successfully administer SNAP online purchasing.
FNS has recognized the need for individuals qualifying for SNAP benefits to having the option to use their benefits to order groceries online on retailers’ websites, an option that was only accessible via four retailers, including two independent grocers, in eight states before the pandemic struck.
Beginning in March, FNS quickly expanded its limited SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot to 47 states, and NGA commends FNS for its robust efforts to expand the program throughout the pandemic.
According to the grocers association, although the pilot is now operating essentially nationwide, store options are still very limited for SNAP customers to use their benefits online.
The NGA said it supports passage of S. 4202 and H.R. 7535, the Expanding SNAP Options Act, legislation introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL), to make it more technically and financially feasible for independent grocers to participate in SNAP online purchasing.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, independent grocers play an important role in helping to ensure food access for consumers, particularly in low-income and rural areas. Further, a USDA ERS study found that independent grocers outnumber chain grocery stores in remote rural areas and operate at higher rates in counties with a large share of Black and Hispanic citizens.
Dozens of independent grocers are interested in offering this service to their customers, and many have applied to FNS to participate, but no grocers other than the pilot retailers have yet launched SNAP online purchasing due to burdensome requirements and several barriers that are uniquely faced by small retailers. These barriers include technical challenges, a testing process that must be performed with each individual store location, financial constraints to launch and continuously operate the program, and a lengthy application and approval process.
NGA member and independent grocer Jimmy Wright, owner of Opelika, Ala.-based Wright’s Market and a participant in the Online SNAP pilot project, shared his experience at the store level.
“A challenge for many small towns and rural areas is that they do not have the population density to support a profitable full-service brick-and-mortar grocery store, and in turn, those communities become food deserts,” Wright noted. “Our mission in our business is nourishing families and strengthening communities, and SNAP online purchasing can help us bring that mission to fruition, by make it easier to serve folks most in need whether or not they can physically come to the store.”